Last week, before Parliament House, up to 1500 people gathered on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples; families, students, couples, grandparents, elders and activists, all brought together for a day to publicly voice their discontent with the federal government. Following the weekend where up to 100,000 Australians marched across the nation in opposition to policies deemed an “affront to the common good”, Monday’s citizen-led protest was the largest mass-demonstration that Canberra has seen in almost 7 years.
Prior to the protest, perceptions of the campaign was mixed in the mainstream media, with some attacking its credibility and others perplexed as to its ultimate purpose and desired outcomes. The massive nation-wide reaction to the call-to-protest, however, must give critics pause considering the massive outpouring of support, both at the protests themselves and throughout all forms of social media.
The Canberra March commenced at 10am behind Old Parliament House with an open mic speak-out where protestors were encouraged to address the growing crowds and express their reasons for marching. Following this, chanting “The people! The planet! No confidence in Abbott!”, protesters marched to the top of the Parliamentary lawns for the remainder of the afternoon where a speaker’s stage had been erected. Attendance at the event fluctuated throughout the day, from a peak of 1500, about 1000 people stayed throughout the afternoon. At 1.30pm, Loz Lawrey, one of the national organisers of the event, took to the stage to read out a Statement of No Confidence that was then presented to the Deputy Leader of the Greens Party, Adam Bandt.
Beneath the banners and placards the mood was upbeat and peaceful with many reclining on picnic rugs or on the grass whilst soaking up the early afternoon sun. The cheers and jeers were loud and frequent as speakers took to the stage to articulate a lengthy list of grievances. Craig Batty, one of the national directors of the March in March campaign, addressed the demonstrators and summarised the spirit of the day: ‘this is not about the ALP versus the LNP, the left versus the right, this is about right versus wrong’. This sentiment was most evident in the views expressed by multiple speakers concerning the notable lack of progress made by either party since 2007 in facilitating the improvement of the health and economic circumstances of Australia’s first peoples and current bipartisan support for brutal and inhumane policies towards asylum seekers.
Amongst the speakers were three of the ANU’s own noted activists: Dr. John Minns, speaking on behalf of the Refugee Action Committee, the doctoral candidate Lorenzo White, speaking on behalf of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, and masters candidate Tom Swann speaking on behalf of the ANU Environment Collective. Dr. Minns, spoke to the ongoing and daily violence of offshore processing and mandatory detention and Mr. White highlighted the renewed attacks on wages, working conditions and organised labour. Mr. Swann’s speech, though, delved much closer to home as he criticised the ANU’s ongoing financial investments in the oil and gas exploration company Santos and called upon the ANU to divest from fossil fuels. At a time when there is no shortage of issues for students across Australia, Dr. Minns, Mr. White and Mr. Swann all emphasised the importance of student mobilisation, engagement and action on these issues in the coming months.
The March in March protests have also come at a precarious time for the Liberal-National Coalition who are currently conducting a vigorous campaign across Western Australia in a bid to obtain the upper hand in the Senate. Failure to secure favourable results in the election rerun will present serious difficulties for the incumbent government as they will be forced to negotiate in order to pass the legislation and reforms that they have been promising to deliver since their election last September.
Whether or not the March in March protests will have any immediate impact on voters in Western Australia, or on grass-root activism in Australia in general, remains to be seen. It has certainly demonstrated that co-ordinated and organised citizens can effectively demonstrate public opinion. But as is often the case, public demonstrations in Australia are often merely momentary instances of dissent and since the early 1990s they seem to have had little effect in changing government policies. In 2003, more than half a million Australians demonstrated against the Iraq War with negligible effect. Nevertheless, the March in March protests are a symbolic gesture of the people’s lack of confidence in the current government, demonstrating the discontent in Australian society, and it can only be hoped this will spur further discussion, activism and eventually policy change.
Jason Andrews is a former undergraduate of the ANU and current post-graduate student at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.